memoir · Raw Writing · The Writing Life · Vancouver

The last light of the sun

Kitsliano, July 30, 2022

In May, I went to a long-awaited John Mayer concert. As many people know, there’s almost nothing I like better than his music and seeing him perform it. (I get a lot of flack for it, but let’s ignore that for now) And I enjoyed it, the company of my fun concert companion, and the show. But something was missing. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. I thought maybe I was disappointed with the set list and fewer new songs than I expected. Then I thought it was trepidation about being in a crowd after so much time stuck at home on my own. But after a week or so of feeling perplexed by my own reaction after not seeing him — or any music — live for two years, it slowly dawned on me that I had lost my usual breadth of emotion. I had become numb from the years of trying to balance unrelenting bad news with my deep fear of medical emergencies — while being steeped in too much reality in my journalism work realm. A person like me, anxious about anything health-related, should probably not be assigned to interview multiple epidemiologists during a global health crisis! I worried for my family members, friends, my city and country, the world … and myself.

The sunset crowd begins to grow at Kits Beach, July 8

Prior to the pandemic, I had somewhat successfully taken the hold button off my life, and for the first time in years began really leaning into a balanced life. I branched out a little more, worked normal hours, made new friends. Took better care of myself. In Toronto, it’s just so easy for me to fall into stasis. But I was having some success climbing out of that until the pandemic threw me back into my workaholic tendencies – this time as a way to counter the chaos around me. At least I can control my day-to-day, was likely my rationale.

A reporter once asked musician/poet Leonard Cohen what he thought his legacy would be. The situation I describe above is not at all about legacy, but his answer rings true with what I think I —- and perhaps a good many of us — have experienced during the pandemic. He said, it’s hard to get a sense of things when you’re always on the front lines dodging bullets. Dodging bullets is what 2020 to at least half of 2022 has felt like. 

This inertia, plus some serious work burnout, is how I arrived in Vancouver on July 4th. A trip I usually take twice a year, I hadn’t been here since December 2019, just before that first terrifying world-wide lock down. And I’d missed it, the place I come to ground myself and to refill the well. Where I remind myself of what’s important to me and determine whether I need to change course on any goals or situations in my life. As I slowly began to get my bearings and reacquaint myself with what I’ve come to consider my true home, it occurred to me that this was the exact state of mind I was in when I moved here in 2000. 

Radiance of the Seas sets sail for Alaska. July 29.

It was just before my 40th birthday. I’d just left a high-profile entertainment PR job to move west where I knew almost no-one, to start fresh in the life I had manifest for myself during five years of intense therapy. After 10 years in a career I was good at but that I’d ultimately learned didn’t suit me, my intention was to see where my creative brain would lead me, maybe pick up some freelance work, and learn how to live the “writing life.”

I had lost my mother unexpectedly three years prior and the biggest revelation to me those first few months was that I hadn’t even begun to process this profound loss. 

I had two occupations then: lying on the beach at English Bay listening to music and the soothing power of ocean waves. And keeping a close watch with a lively group of Stanley Park wildlife enthusiasts on the Lost Lagoon mute swans nesting and hatching their young. 

Being in Vancouver reignited my writing practice.

Who was this new person who cared about swan eggs so much that she’d sit beside the nest uttering encouraging words to the parents as they took turns warming the eggs. I barely recognized myself as I recited silent prayers daily for these precious birds whose eggs I’d been told, hadn’t been viable last season. Worse, as part of the decorative swan program in parks across the Commonwealth, they were pinioned and unable to fly away from urban pests such as raccoons, and wildlife such as eagles and blue herons. We worried the species might die out, especially since part of the reason for difficult fertility was that the mutes were aging and there were not enough mating-age swans. One older male had become pretty much the only partner for a few female swans. This also became the cause for more territorial behaviour than usual on the lagoon. That spring, I made a deal with the one pair whose eggs stood a chance: if your cygnets survive, my life in Vancouver will thrive, too. 

This was just the beginning of new experiences and the biggest transformation in my life. Though it’s now more than 20 years later, so much of what forms my foundation now began then. 

Along the Stanley Park Seawall, July 25

So what does this have to do with this past month? Well it all felt so similar. With a two-year gap in my time in the place that revives me, I had lost myself a little more than I’d realized. I arrived late on a Monday night, fumbled in the semi-darkness for the lockbox and keys to my West 3rd Ave apartment, a few blocks up from Kits Beach. I went straight to bed, exhausted by the flight, and the time difference, anxious to get this travel day over with.

The next day I woke to almost the exact view I’d had in my first-ever Vancouver apartment: the North Shore mountains and English Bay, and to the right a speckling of high rises just to remind one that a city exists against this idyllic surround. It took me no time to get into the swing of west coast life to the point that after a month of being here, I’m not sure how it’s possible to get on a plane and go back to a place where I often feel like an imposter living a parallel life to the one I should be enjoying.

Sunset from Trafalgar Beach, July 30

This visit and all I learned during it is extremely personal and I’ll reserve most of it for myself. During my time here, I kept both a physical and video journal, I documented every cup of coffee, cocktail, scenic walk, conversation with friends, the mountains from all different perspectives, and so many sunset photos I had to ask myself if it was too much. Ultimately I decided that every sunset I captured was enough to warrant all that iPhone storage! I didn’t want to forget a thing because the pandemic has (re)taught me that nothing can ever be taken for granted and though I plan to come back next year … you just never know, do you?

The writer Isabel Huggan says: There are places on the planet we belong that are not necessarily where we were born. If we are lucky — if the gods are in a good mood — we find them, for whatever length of time is necessary for us to know that, yes, we belong to the earth and it to us.”

I came to Vancouver somewhat broken. I return with a renewed sense of direction and confidence. There’s no question where I belong. Only what to do about it.